Dariya Mahal is an elegant holdout from a calmer, more gracious era hidden within the busy Mumbai suburb of Versova. Gayatri Rangachari Shah discovers its secrets.
Photographs by Ritam Banerjee
Among the parts of Mumbai worst affected by unchecked construction and a lack of urban planning are the city’s northern suburbs. The former township of Versova is a prime example. Once a gracious northern corner, home to quaintly named neighbourhoods like the famous Seven Bungalows, today Versova’s cacophony of sights and sounds gives it a quintessential Mumbai air. Slow moving traffic, incessant honking and shoddy construction mar the landscape. Single family beachfront dwellings have long given way to five or six-storey buildings, most sporting hanging laundry across the ubiquitous corroded metal grilles that line their windows. Mom-and-pop dry goods stores have been replaced by fancy coffee bars, hair salons, and designer boutiques. Given its proximity to the suburban film studios, a number of movie stars and film executives now live and work in the area, effectively making it a Bollywood hub.
Yet from this unlovely chaos there emerges a thing of beauty, a structure so charming and unexpected that visitors who pass through its entrance can’t help but gasp. A metal gate and yellow boundary wall are the only indication of what hides behind: a stately bungalow recalling the city’s once glorious architectural past. Dariya Mahal, or Palace by the Sea, is set on an acre of prime beachfront and remains largely untouched since it was built in the early 1930s.
Dariya Mahal is the last of the original seven bungalows from which the neighbourhood got its name. The house was designed by one of British India’s foremost architects, Claude Batley, for a wealthy textile merchant, Maneklal Chunilal Chinai. Batley is responsible for some of Mumbai’s most famous landmarks including Bombay Central Station, the Bombay Gymkhana, Breach Candy Hospital, Lincoln House (originally for the Maharaja of Wankaner) and Jinnah House, the former home of the founder of Pakistan.
As Maneklal’s grandson, 51-year-old Harish Chinai, tells it, when his grandfather asked Batley to build him a house, the architect told him about a recently completed residence (what is now Lincoln House) in Breach Candy that would suit his needs. “But grandad refused, saying the property didn’t have a beach, just a lot of rocks!” (Lincoln House was recently vacated and press reports suggest that a number of big companies, including the Tatas are interested in the property, which has a reported price tag close to $190 million.
Boasting 15 bedrooms, 12 bathrooms and 20ft-high ceilings, Dariya Mahal’s existence in Mumbai’s current real estate landscape boggles the mind. Yet such bungalows were common until the 1980s, most of them having been built in the first half of the last century.
Whereas today tycoons construct pae- ans to the gods of height and FSI (floor space index), it wasn’t always so. Like many self-made merchants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Maneklal prospered in the thriving textile trade between India and China. (Indeed, the Chinai family maintained a home in Shanghai, complete with a Gujarati cook, until the 1960s.) Spurred by a legendary childhood incident where a constable threw him off a beach for being Indian, Maneklal vowed to build himself a home where he could enjoy his own private beachfront sunset, and that he did, blessing his descendants with one of the best views on offer across the city. Built at a cost of Rs 150,000, which included the price of the land, a very considerable sum in those days, Dariya Mahal helped define its neighbourhood. The other six homeowners in the original Seven Bungalows area read like a Who’s Who of famous Indians: royalty like the Maharaja of Gwalior and the Maharaja of Kutch, one of the original founders of the Indian National Congress, Dadabhai Naoroji, and affluent Parsis like Sir Rustom Masani, Sorabjee Talati and the Khambattas.
Nineteen-thirties Bombay, when Dariya Mahal was constructed, was the scene of frenetic building activity, the late writer and historian Sharada Dwivedi had explained to me. Versova was a remote corner of the city, with no proper roads and no street lights. There was no wall separating the property from the beachfront and the tide would wash up into the gardens of the house.
Built in the Indo-Saracenic style that combines traditional Hindu and Muslim elements with British Gothic and Neoclassical ones, Dariya Mahal’s façade is painted a bright ochre yellow. The property has three garages, a 1,000-square-feet guest house and one of the most spectacular, sprawling lawns in Mumbai. In the years leading to Independ- ence, Sardar Patel, one of independent India’s founding fathers, spent time here. In the 1990s, the Hindu seer Swami Chinmayananda was a regular visitor.
The house now is almost eerily quiet despite a staff of 20, including three gardeners, a full-time electrician, a cook, a cook’s helper and four maids. In the old days this large household bought its rice directly from Amritsar and kept all its grains and produce in storage rooms adjacent to the kitchen, separate from the main house as was then the norm in Indian households.
During World War II, the government attempted to appropriate Dariya Mahal for army housing using the power of eminent domain. Maneklal was devastated, but his neighbour and friend Sir Rustom Masani, the first Indian municipal commissioner of Bombay, came to his aid. He persuaded the British authorities, with whom he had excellent relations, that Maneklal had built Dariya Mahal in Versova so that his seriously ill wife could avail herself of the sea air, and it would be cruel to deny him that right. The story worked, and the bungalow remained in Chinai hands.
Step inside Dariya Mahal and you go back in time. High ceilings dominate the main foyer, living and dining area. Original Burma teakwood is everywhere. It was salvaged by the owner himself. According to Harish, after Batley had finished building Dariya Mahal, he asked Maneklal for an additional Rs 50,000 to complete the interiors. Harish says his grandfather was appalled. “He told Batley, ‘I’ve given you my entire life savings, where do I get more money?’ He ordered Batley to stop work immediately and went out to inspect the property. That’s when he saw these three old wooden boats bobbing in the water. They were Portuguese boats that had been sitting in front of the koli fishing village for about 50 years, unclaimed. So he went to the koliwada and asked about the ownership. There was a Goan character, half drunk, who claimed to own the boats, and so my grandfather proposed buying them. The Goan quoted what seemed like an outrageous sum to his mind – Rs 1,000. My grandfather handed over the money and had carpenters swim out the next day to cut up the wood and bring it ashore. That’s what all our interior woodwork is made from, those old boats.” Original glass etchings and wall carvings abound. Over the years, the furniture has been reupholstered, resulting in a mishmash of styles. Some balconies have been enclosed and the kitchen has been moved indoors, next to the dining rooms. Yet Art Deco lights and wall mouldings remain intact.
The bungalow has been divided among Maneklal’s surviving sons into three wings. Upkeep of Dariya Mahal is expensive and the owners sometimes rent it out for photo and film shoots. Perhaps the most famous film shot there is the 2006 hit Lage Raho Munna Bhai, starring Sanjay Dutt. Harish sums up the family sentiment when asked if there are any pressures to sell and cash out: “Money doesn’t bring happiness. When you walk into this house it’s like you’re at the end of the world. You can leave all your tension and stress behind.”
Gayatri Rangachari Shah is a Mumbai based journalist. She contributes to the New York Times, International Herald Tribune and Harper’s Bazaar, where she helps with editorial direction. Gayatri graduated from Columbia University’s school of journalism. She has lived all over the world, most memorably in Islamabad and Algiers.